Mexican Masters of the Medium: Mexico's Ancient Civilizations Serve as Inspiration for a Wide Gamut of Artistic Creations, from Elegant Clay Pots to Witty Glass and Mixed-Media Assemblages

By Sorrentino, Joseph | Americas (English Edition), January-February 2009 | Go to article overview

Mexican Masters of the Medium: Mexico's Ancient Civilizations Serve as Inspiration for a Wide Gamut of Artistic Creations, from Elegant Clay Pots to Witty Glass and Mixed-Media Assemblages


Sorrentino, Joseph, Americas (English Edition)


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Mata Ortiz must be one of the least pretentious famous villages in Mexico, if not the world. The village is known worldwide for its pottery, which is prized for its craftsmanship and the beautiful intricacy of its designs. Pots made by the village's master potters fetch as much as US$15,000 and are in the collections of a number of museums, including the Smithsonian. Yet the village has no paved roads, houses are mostly simple unpainted adobe brick, and the residents are unfailingly kind and generous. It's almost as if they don't know how famous they are.

How such a humble village came to be so renowned for its pottery is an interesting story, and one that's impossible to tell without mentioning the ancient civilization known as Paquime, whose pots served as the model for modern Mata Ortiz pottery. One would also have to talk about the painstaking rediscovery of ancient pottery techniques and the two men primarily responsible for bringing Mata Ortiz to the world's attention: Juan Quezada and Spencer MacCallum. The story goes something like this:

The Paquime civilization had once flourished across northern Mexico and parts of the southwestern United States. One major Paquime site about twenty miles north of Mata Ortiz was abandoned sometime before 1450 after being attacked and burned. Spaniards renamed the site Casas Grandes (Big Houses) for the multi-leveled dwellings the civilization was known for. That is still the name of the quaint village near the ruins. One of the legacies of the Paquime civilization is the beautifully made and exquisitely decorated pots that are still occasionally found in the area. Finding an intact pot is rare now, but the hills surrounding nearby villages are filled with pottery shards, and those shards captured the interest of Juan Quezada over fifty years ago.

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When he was a boy, Quezada would find pieces of pottery as he scoured the hills for firewood. Innately inquisitive and possessing an artistic nature, he began studying them, noting how different pieces were made from different clays and how they were covered with intricate patterns. One day, Quezada came across an undisturbed Paquime burial cave containing, among other things, three intact pots. So taken was he with their beauty that he vowed to recreate the pots; no easy task since there was no information about how the pottery was made. Quezada needed to figure out where to find the clays, devise a way to construct the pots without a potter's wheel, discover native pigments from which to make the paints, and learn how to fire them. He needed sixteen years of trial and error to produce his first satisfactory pot.

Quezada might have remained an unknown and impoverished potter and Mata Ortiz just another dusty northern Mexico village had it not been for Spencer MacCallum.

MacCallum was living in San Pedro, California in the early 1970s when he bought a fourteenth century Paquime pot at a yard sale. "I put it on my piano at home," he said, "and I would pass it every day." Something about it intrigued him. In early 1976 in New Mexico, he found three lovely small pots that were familiar to him. "I immediately recognized them as being made by someone who knew about Paquime pots," he said. He wanted to know who had made the pots but the owner had no idea and suggested simply that he "try Mexico." Armed with photos of the pots, MacCallum set out for Mexico to find the person who was making Paquime art 500 years after that civilization had been destroyed.

Amazingly, it only took MacCallum two days to find Quezada in his small home in Mata Ortiz. It was a double surprise. "I was surprised it was Juan, a man, since most potters in traditional Native American cultures are women," said MacCallum, "and Juan couldn't believe anyone would ever come looking for him."

By the time MacCallum came on the scene, Quezada had already been selling his pots for a few dollars in US stores and was teaching family members how to make them. …

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